Understanding and Governing the Global Business of Forced Labour
How and why does forced labour emerge within the global political economy?
This three-year research project, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council Grant, investigates and compares the business models of forced labour within global agricultural supply chains led by UK-based companies, focussing on case studies of tea and cocoa.
Deepening concern about forced labour and slavery has paralleled the growth of the world's biggest retail and manufacturing companies in the era of globalisation. Rather than employing their own workforces, these companies coordinate the production of goods through commercial contracts with thousands of arms-lengths supplier firms. Governing the labour standards of thousands of small, distant global supply chain partners is a serious challenge for states and industry. One of the gravest and growing risks brand companies face is suppliers' use of forced labour, human trafficking, or slavery as a strategy to reduce costs.
Indeed, the risk of forced labour is now significant: the International Labour Organization estimates that the illegal profits derived annually from the extraction of forced labour by private businesses exceeds £89 billion, and most forced labour takes place in the private sector. From forced labour on UK farms to slavery on Thai fishing boats, perpetrators of illegal labour practices pose a growing threat to their reputation, legitimacy, and profits. In light of the urgent challenge of detecting and eradicating forced labour, there is considerable merit in trying to better understand its business dynamics and how illegal profits are derived from it.
Studying forced labour provides an important lens into the impact of liberalisation polices and global economic change over the last several decades. While structural factors including 'poverty' and 'globalisation' are increasingly acknowledged as drivers, there is a dearth of analysis regarding when, why and how these systems and inter-related dynamics like inequality and labour market insecurity give rise to severe labour exploitation including forced labour. Through case studies of UK-based corporations and labour practices in India and Ghana, this project will shed light into how and why forced labour manifests in the global economy and the systematic changes that would be required to eliminate it.
About the research
This research aims to achieve an in-depth understanding of how the business of forced labour operates in global supply chains. In other words, it will deepen our understanding of how individuals or organisations profit from forced labour within the context of formal industry, and of the governance gaps that give rise to such dynamics. Key questions include:
The research questions are being investigated through a range of qualitative methods including: elite interviews with key industry and government informants; ethnographic interviews and a survey with tea workers and cocoa workers. Supply chain analysis will be used to understand how firm-to-firm dynamics shape the context in which forced labour manifests within global supply chains.
The new evidence base generated through this project will contribute to ongoing academic and policy debates on the causes of, and systemic political economic solutions to, forced labour in global commodity production.The research will also make original contributions to several scholarly literatures:
This study will bridge these theoretically distinct yet empirically overlapping literatures to expand our understanding of the critical points of intersection, and will contribute to the emergence of a more holistic theory to understand forced labour’s roots in the global political economy.